At the Stockport May meeting John Coss considered the topic Is Humanism a Religion? Much of the answer depends on the definition of Religion, which is a toxic word in Humanist circles. John considered two definitions which he called Religion 1 and Religion 2. Religion 1 is the strict dictionary definition which includes supernaturalism; Religion 2 is a more modern definition which permits, but does not require, dogma or supernaturalism. John hopes that religions will increasingly drop these features but until they do it is best not to refer to Humanism as a religion. But it is still worth regarding Humanism as a religion in the Religion 2 sense.
So Humanism can be a religion or an alternative to religion. Less controversially it is: a belief system, a world view, a life stance, a philosophy of life, a moral perspective, an ethical system, a spiritual path, an approach to life and a meaning frame.
The Amsterdam Declaration is a statement of the fundamental principles of modern Humanism and is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought. Humanism is ethical, rational, supports democracy and believes in personal liberty and human rights, values artistic creativity and imagination, and aims at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. It provides an alternative to dogmatic religion.
Humanists live as if there is no god or other supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in world affairs.
John dealt with a range of views on Humanism and Religion of various non-religious thinkers including our own David Seddon, Alain de Botton, Noel Cheer, Julian Huxley, Albert Einstein and Ronald Dworkin.
So what kind of thing is religion? And what is it about/for? Its beliefs are about matters of ultimate importance, community/fellowship, ethics, making sense of the universe, rituals and ceremonies, spirituality, the meaning of life and how are we to live?
According to the anthropologist, David Eller, Its functions fill individual needs, provide explanation for origins and causes, exercise social control, provide solutions for immediate problems and fulfil the needs of society. According to Jared Diamond it provides explanation, diffuses anxiety, provides comfort and hope and meaning in life, justifies obedience to the state, getting along with strangers and hatred of believers in other religions.
There are some humanly essential pursuits that religions engage in such as supporting people through difficult times (chaplaincy, spirituality or emotional fulfilment, morality without authority, a forum for philosophical discussion and debate, and community fellowship that need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.
It is difficult to get a consensus of a definition of religion. There are various dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions and many thinkers have provided their own definitions. E.g. Thomas Paine: “independence is my happiness . . . and my religion is to do good.” David Sloan Williams: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices that unites members into one single moral community”. Examples from various websites include: “an explanation of the meaning of life and how to live accordingly” and “Our human response to being alive and having to die”.
From these and other definitions John concludes that Humanism is a religion according to some reasonable modern ideas of what religion is (Religion 2) He went on to discuss the implications of this conclusion for Humanism and the challenges ahead.